All the worlds a stage for the Russian aristocrats in the latest adaptation of Leo Tolstoys Anna Karenina. But if its only a play, why should we care?
By ANN LEWINSON
Special to The Star
Setting the action primarily in a decaying theater, director Joe Wright, working from a screenplay by playwright Tom Stoppard, has made a film about a society in decline. If you are expecting a passionate romance between an adulterous wife and a young, mustachioed soldier, you are advised to look elsewhere.
As he did in his adaptations of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, Wright calls on his muse, Keira Knightley. Here she goes where Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh and Jacqueline Bisset have gone before, playing Anna, the wife of a stiff government official (Jude Law).
Anna meets the allegedly dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) in a train station on her way to mend the marriage of her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen, who played opposite Knightley in Pride & Prejudice), who also has a wandering eye. Meanwhile, Oblonskys idealistic friend Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) is carrying a torch for Oblonskys sister-in-law Kitty (Alicia Vikander), who is in love with Vronsky.
These are parallel storylines, but the movie seems to forget about one, then the other.
Knightleys Anna is a brittle, flighty bird who takes one glance from a younger man as an excuse to fly the coop. But its Taylor-Johnson (formerly Johnson in Kick-Ass and Savages), his hair streaked like George Michael circa Wham!, whos fatal neither seductive enough to lure a woman away from Law (even without most of his hair) nor a compelling screen presence in his own right. He and Knightley are well-matched in eyebrows, but thats about it.
They are upstaged by the theater in which their characters dally, with its rolling sets, painted backdrops, glowing footlights and stage doors that slide open onto a frozen tundra. Its the sort of expansive, impossible stage Esther Williams might have aquacaded on, allowing Wright to both investigate every nook of a confining space, as he did in the Tallis house in the first half of Atonement, and indulge his predilection for long pans, as in that films five-minute Dunkirk beach Steadicam shot. Here the pans are 360-degree meticulously choreographed marvels.
Then theres the actual choreography, by Belgian contemporary dance choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who gets equal billing with ace cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and composer Dario Marianelli. A roomful of clerks stands and sits in a dance of futility, stamping documents in time with the music. Anna and Vronskys first dance incorporates an intricate, voguey forearm jive. (The anachronisms are extended to Annas forward-looking wardrobe: 1870s Paris couture on the bottom, 1950s Balenciaga on top.)
But the theatrical conceit distances the audience from the characters, reminding us that its only a play. Under these straitened circumstances its only Law who moves; Gleeson (who played Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter films) also makes an impression, but he has the advantage of playing the character who spends the least amount of time in the theater.
Like its rebellious heroine, Wrights costume drama may flout the rules, but its as chilly as the Siberian steppe.
(At the Rio, Tivoli and Town Center.)